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Retirement villages get a redesign for the times

03 September 2020

The rapid onset of COVID-19 brought with it a new way of thinking about the way that we do almost everything. Even in lower levels of lockdown, where much has returned to business as usual, there remains a need to practise increased hygiene and safety protocols to protect those who are most vulnerable. 

This means changing more than simply behaviour, but rethinking the spaces that we occupy as well. Wherever people once congregated freely, there has been a need to re-focus not only the spaces but the way that they are inhabited and used. Airports, for example, have been restructured to adjust the flow of foot traffic and reduce areas of congregation and congestion. 

Going forward, the design of public spaces may well change significantly. Supermarkets, for instance, could need a layout adjustment which leaves more space for people to pass each other in aisles and maintain a safe distance from others even in queues. 

Retirement villages also pose a unique set of design challenges, being where higher-risk groups of people interact in communal spaces. Prior to the pandemic, the elderly sector was already in a state of flux, adjusting to longer life spans, more active retirements and changing desires for care and community facilities. 

The baby boomer generation, now entering retirement years, demanded a facelift from the old model of retirement home. Instead of a clinical setting, rocking chairs, sewing and daytime television in one communal area, today’s retirees have a more active lifestyle and they require the facilities to match. But it’s these enhancements, which center around community activities and amenities, that present a challenge in a COVID-19 world. 

Julie Morelle, Head of Developments at Evergreen Lifestyle, says that these issues are complex and must be urgently addressed to protect current residents and ensure safe spaces for seniors as the global population grows and ages.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has pushed architects to relook the design of retirement villages to deal with the immediate crisis and ensure the utmost safety of residents in the long term,” she explains. “The retirement estate construction industry must be refined at every level from the ground up. The pandemic has created a lot of disruption in the industry, providing us with the opportunity to rethink and improve our way of working. Construction sites were locked down for more than two months, giving us time to implement increased safety precautions before reopening in June.”

“Evergreen is continuously looking to improve the lifestyle and welfare of its residents through a combination of design development, innovation, technology and operations. The pandemic presents not just a requirement, but an opportunity to reinforce the pillars that form the basis of what we offer our residents: physical security, financial peace of mind, continuous care, sense of community and exceptional hospitality.” 

According to the National Council on Aging in the United States, “relationships with friends and family outweigh financial concerns among older Americans seeking fulfillment in their senior years”.

One of the positive side effects of global lockdowns is that people have been reminded of the importance of connecting with loved ones. Morelle stresses that this is still a priority – if not more than ever – in rethinking the structure of retirement facilities. This can be achieved by increasing indoor and outdoor space for social activities, separating medical care facilities from lifestyle facilities, and the use of technology to maintain connection. 

“We must ensure that retirees have meaningful stimulation daily, which includes frequent phone and video calls. Virtual fitness activities, games and gatherings are especially useful for retirees to engage with staff, other residents and the outside world. When residents do share spaces, strict health and safety protocols are followed and the weekly entertainment programme has been adjusted to ensure safety and social distancing.” 

“To top this, our residents’ needs include physical activity, medical care when required and a lifestyle that promotes connection and social interaction for their mental and emotional well-being. We’ve taken a technology-driven approach to connect staff, residents and family,” she says. 

Developers are also having to change the design of units and general facilities to take account of the coronavirus disease and ensure residents’ safety. In addition to generous common areas, this includes more compact homes, personal outdoor areas such as balconies and gardens, touchless access control, the use of materials that are easy to clean and long lasting, sanitation stations, COVID-19 signage, increased health monitoring of staff and residents, and nurses living inside the villages to be available for continuous care. 

Morelle notes that even as lockdown restrictions are decreasing, it’s important to plan for the future especially as the world is now hyper-aware of the fact that the possibility of a global pandemic is not a concept confined to dystopian films and novels. 

“We have had to rethink how we operate daily to establish a safe system of working, with clear definitions of shifts, roles and responsibilities on site. The way we approach design and layout must always take safety into account as a top priority. We also have new ways of interacting with village management, consultants, internal teams and potential and current residents. This includes virtual meetings, videos, and virtual tours of sites and units.” 

While the world was not prepared for a pandemic of the proportions of COVID-19, the lessons learned during this time could provide increased safety and improved design to benefit retirement facilities for the better in the long-term.  

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